Prime Minister Benjamin "Bibi" Netanyahu  AP Photo

Prime Minister Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu  – AP Photo

Many suiters present themselves, who will win Israel’s heart?

The elections for the 20th Knesset, currently planned for 2017, will take on the unique character of serving as a competition for the successorship rather than a real battle for the Prime Minister’s (PM) Office. Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu will likely lead the government that is formed in that Knesset. The question really comes down to who can best position themselves for the 21st Knesset elections which should arrive circa 2021.

Outside of Likud, Labor’s Isaac Herzog and centre-left Yesh Atid (There is a Future) Party leader Yair Lapid are the best positioned at present. Other contenders are also making a play.

The leadership struggle within Likud to succeed as party leader and would-be PM will also be quite a battle. Over the last three decades Likud has shown itself a powerful force in Israeli politics. The leader of this part is guaranteed to be a relevant figure in Israeli politics even if the party is out of power.

Likud has many aspiring leaders, many represent the rightward shift in Likud that has taken place in the years since Ariel Sharon took Likud’s centre-right moderates off to the Kadima Party. Danny Danon and Moshe Feiglin are too far right to lead any future Israeli government. Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon has promise but will have difficulty keeping the right-wing of the party in check. Silvan Shalom’s day may have come and gone. Shalom built his career being to the left of Yitschak Shamir in the 1980’s and has lately taken position to the right of Bibi Netanyahu. He is unlikely to inspire confidence.

What will become of Likud after Bibi? This week the Prime Minister returned his focus to his own party, meeting with central committee members and seeking to shore up his political base. Bibi needs to cultivate centre-right party members and make certain that Likud’s next primary produces a more sensible list that chastises hardliners like Danon and Feiglin while elevating more sensible and electable candidates. He should also look to mentor a successor within that more centrist Likud.

Many rumors have made the circuit that Bibi is planning a centre-right alternative to Likud. Such rumors were kicked off as the party began reengaging with the Palestinian Authority in the peace process. Since the kidnapping of Israeli teens and subsequent Operation Protective Edge, the demand for such a centre-right shift seems to have abated. Bibi and Likud are not the only political forces on the centre-right, however.

Moshe Kahlon, a former Likudnik, has already been cultivating the centre-right landscape. In a recent article, I described how he might build a party from many highly noteworthy and well-respected Israeli political personalities. Kahlon is famous for lowering cell phone costs for average Israelis. He has gained popularity as an upright leader who can improve conditions for Israeli society as a whole. In the next Knesset Kahlon must first carve out a significant showing in the elections and then prove with success that he can lead the country. That is a longer road to succeeding Bibi than other aspirants may have, but one well worth the taking.

Alignment/Labor has been the other dominant force in Israeli politics, especially in earlier years. Labor has been in a slump since Ehud Barak’s government fell in 2001. Ariel Sharon’s centre-left shift in 2005 led to the formation of the Kadima (Forward) Party. This party weakened Likud and the right, but utterly destroyed Labor. Since that time, Labor has occupied the far left with centre-left parties crushing Labor at election after election.

Labor’s new charismatic leader, Isaac Herzog, also the subject of a recent article, has been carefully attacking the centre-left while also reaching out to its leaders, especially former Likudnik and Kadima leader Tzipi Livni. Her new Hatnuah (The Movement) Party came from nowhere in the last election to earn six seats; shaming Shaul Mofaz and the remnant of Kadima which earned just two seats and is not likely to serve in the next Knesset. Livni narrowly missed the opportunity to become PM twice, succumbing to defeat in the 18th Knesset election of 2009 despite earning one more seat than Likud. Livni is certainly a competitor for the PMs Office, but would have a long climb to get there. She would first have to dominate the centre-left once again, then take on both the left and the right to achieve victory.

Yair Lapid finds himself in a similar position. Lapid’s Yesh Atid (There is A Future) Party was built as a professional centre-left party focused on equal service and social benefits regarding the Haredi, engagement in the peace process, and greater prosperity for average Israelis. Lapid’s popularity plummeted after the recent government was formed. His position as Finance Minister has not helped, as his office is one that makes few friends and many enemies. Lapid’s popularity has recently returned to a small degree as he has taken a stand against tax increases. Lapid, too, must combat the right and the left in order to reach a point where he could lead a government. He also has the more experienced and tenacious Tzipi Livni to contend with within the centre-left.

Some attention has been paid to Naftali Bennet, leader of the Bayit HaYehudi (Home for the Jews) Party. Bennet departed Likud several years ago to rehabilitate this small and otherwise insignificant party. He has gained prominence by so doing, but has done little for his chances of succeeding Bibi. Bayit HaYehudi appeals to settlers and disillusioned young right leaning voters. In other words, it is a protest party in which those with more nationalist aspirations show their discontent with Likud. Although this party earned 12 seats in the 19th Knesset in last year’s election, this was largely due to the fact that Yisrael Beteinu (Israel is Our Home) ran on a joint list with Likud. Without the ability to protest by voting for one party, many voters protested by voting for another. As Likud and Yisrael Beteinu will likely run on separate lists in the next election, Bayit Hayehydi is not likely to do as well. Could Bennet rejoin Likud and attempt to position himself as an internal successor to Bibi? Stranger things have happened in Israeli politics, but this is a very unlikely scenario.

Yisrael Beteinu (YB) and its leaders have recently made some headlines by speaking of a possible future YB-led government. This talk has been careful to avoid referencing YB’s leader the controversial Avigdor Liberman as a possible Prime Minister. The reality is, however, that YB is a secular immigrant party that happens to be quite nationalist. The party formed decades ago to represent rightist Russian immigrants and has now branched out into other constituencies. Many of these constituencies vote for YB in protest of the policies of Likud. Protest votes do not translate into leadership votes. YB is likely to remain a right-leaning party that joins coalitions and guides governments, but that does not itself have much chance of leading one.

Who will succeed Bibi? That is a tricky question. Chances are it will be Herzog, Ya’alon, Lapid, Livni, or Kahlon. Others may join the list as well. Who will ultimately prevail will depend largely on the 20th Knesset elections and how well each party and leader is positioned for the following election.